soundstreamsunday #110: “Twa Corbies” by Steeleye Span

twacorbiesThe power in “O Fortuna” — last week’s entry on the infinite linear mixtape — is in its performative setting, the text from Carmina Burana, enlivened, engulfed, by Carl Orff’s score.  Liquored- and sexed-up Goliards may have written it, may have given it a chant or two in its 12th-century time, but it was Orff who saw its dark potential and thus defined it.  It’s the magic in the most successful pieces of music, and why the idea of performance (whether it’s a live rendering of a piece or a feat of studio engineering), the act of putting on a mask, is such an important counter to its parallel, authenticity, with its passing and uncaptureable fire.

The conceits of performance make any “folk” revival possible, and while the makeup may be thickly applied at times — whether it’s a young Bob Dylan doing his best to carry himself like Woody Guthrie or Gillian Welch’s plaintive approximation of Appalachia — it’s a path to something deeper, a striving towards the elemental.

When Ashley Hutchings left Fairport Convention in late 1969 to form Steeleye Span, something like this may have been on his mind.  In bringing together two couples rooted in Britain’s folk music scene, Maddy Prior and Tim Hart, and Gay and Terry Woods, Hutchings was continuing a search to find a balance between the traditional and contemporary, which would soon lead him to form another keystone of the revival, the Albion (Country) Band.  The Woods’s left after the first record, 1970’s Hark! The Village Wait (Terry would go on to be one of the essential Pogues), and increasingly over the next decade Steeleye would be vocalist extraordinaire Maddy Prior’s vehicle, but the debut captures the spirit of the BritFolk moment, with Hutchings and Fairport drummer Dave Mattacks giving a rock anchor to traditional flights.

“Twa Corbies” brings the darkness, recounting a conversation between two crows about making a meal of a dead knight.  Based on “The Three Ravens,” the song was first published in 1611 but in all likelihood has a far deeper past.  Steeleye makes the most of it, Prior’s clarion call washed in the ragged-but-right chorus of her bandmates.

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane;
The tane unto the t’other say,
‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’
‘In behint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.
‘His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady’s taen another mate,
So we may mak our dinner sweet.
‘Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair
We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.
‘Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken where he is gane;
Oer his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.

The chunky lo-fi crash apropos a murder of crows murks in the background, conjuring its medieval vibe as baldly and surely as Orff might, electric guitars not detracting from the proceedings.  We’re there, with the band, with the corbies, pikin’ at the bonny blue een.

*Image above by Sam Black.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

 

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